In case you had your head in the sand, there was a big announcement on Tuesday. And I mean big, folks. Tuesday brought forth our very first regulation curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. Go ahead, have a “holy shit” moment. Because you deserve it. Because this is that big.
I see some of you skeptical minds in the audience who, instead of cheering victory, are throwing up your arms thinking, “Wait a minute buddy. How on earth did this happen? Don’t we constantly lament the lack of action to address the climate?”
Don’t you worry. It’s still 2012. Congress still hates the environment and the larger public still looks at climate science with a less than necessary squinted eye. This rule wasn’t birthed by way of a miracle; it was birthed by the famous 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court decision.
So here we are five years later with our very first federal action to address greenhouse gas emissions. Hooray! Right?
Celebrations to honor this rule are being thrown selectively and with hesitation. This rule, while it’s been a long time coming, has limitations. For starters and if you pick up only one thing, you should note that this rule does not cover currently existing plants. As I mentioned, the rule only covers new plants, through what are called the New Source Performance Standards. Old plants will not be covered under the rule—at least, not yet.
Which may create a problem. Say for example a utility is considering retiring a plant that emits 2100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. Under this rule, a utility may opt to continue with this plant because a newer plant that emits say 1600 pounds of carbon dioxide would not be permitted under this rule.
While some in the green loving community may also point to the new plant application, instead of an all-encompassing rule, as a sign for hesitation, Brad Plumer makes a great point in a post to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog. Plumer recalls a great 2005 paper written by Harvard economist Robert Stavins. In his paper, Stavins wrote of “vintage-differentiated regulation.” Huh?
“Vintage-differentiated regulation” is Stavin’s concept that environmental regulations have always taken on future problems while easing up on the existing problem pool. He argues that this has been the case for the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and others. Yet, he points out that this approach created problems for the Clean Air Act when Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), the bill’s lead sponsor, was assured that regulating older plants wasn’t necessary because they would be retired at some point soon. As we know, this didn’t quite turn out to be the case. Now, we are aware of these limitations. Hence, the hesitation to cheer victory, given that we’re not tackling older plants.
Most see this rule as a victory in that it will result in more natural gas plants instead of king coal. Some say that the standard, 1000 lbs CO2/MWh, is roughly equal to the emissions of a natural gas plant. Natural gas is also very cheap—right now. Again, a double-edged sword: As natural gas prices swing back up, as they will, these plants will be less of a victory for the everyday, not so big into spinach, consumer. Coal plants may also still (stubbornly) be able to exist, assuming they apply some very expensive and not entirely feasible technologies to their plants, like carbon capture and sequestration.
So what’s the final verdict? Let out a cheer, and carry on. The bigger rule will be the rule for existing plants. That’s where the real impact can come.